How NFL Free Agency Affects the Draft, Part 1
There’s a lot of things in the world that have affected next month’s NFL Draft. Coronavirus is the most obvious one, which has led to teams conducting interviews over FaceTime. Roger Goodell finally won’t get booed when he takes the (virtual) stage this year. Honestly, that might be the final nail in the “2020 is the weirdest year of our lives” coffin. There’s also the usual suspects, though: free agency, trades, combine performances, etc. Today, we’ll focus on the first two. How have teams’ offseason moves affected their priorities in the draft?
I’m going to go through every team and name one move or collection of moves that changes what we’ve been seeing in mock drafts. Teams will be in alphabetical order by city. This is Part 1 of 2, with Arizona through Kansas City. Part 2 will be up tomorrow!
Arizona Cardinals: Trading for WR DeAndre Hopkins
Keim bomb! Arizona had been mocked Kyler Murray’s former teammate CeeDee Lamb in nearly every mock for the last three months. Then, they went out and robbed Houston blind. Now the Cardinals will, in all likelihood, not spend a pick on a receiver until the late rounds. I mean, look at this group! Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, Hakeem Butler, KeeSean Johnson, and Andy Isabella are a deep and mostly young group.
Instead, I’d look for Arizona to shift their attention to one of the top tackles in the class. It’ll depend which one(s) of Wirfs, Wills, Becton, and Thomas are there at 8th overall, though. Plus, there’s theoretical talent on this line, despite the ugly numbers. DJ Humphries was extended and Marcus Gilbert was brought back after an injury ended his 2019.
The wild-card here is linebacker. ESPN lists the current projected starters at inside linebacker as Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell. That’s not awful, but could be improved upon. Why not go after Isaiah Simmons at 8th overall to make your defense just as explosive as your offense?
Atlanta Falcons: Trading for TE Hayden Hurst
The Falcons have been quiet during free agency, but they’ve done well to plug the holes created by their own talent leaving. Dante Fowler Jr. was brought in to replace Vic Beasley Jr., Todd Gurley will replace Devonta Freeman, and Hurst replaces Austin Hooper. The reason I pick Hurst as the biggest move for Atlanta is simple. Adding Fowler doesn’t, in my mind, eliminate the need at EDGE for the Falcons, nor does plugging Gurley in solve their RB woes. I’d still expect the team to search for prospects to complement those additions early on.
At tight end, though, adding Hurst might prevent Atlanta from selecting one in the draft. It might be a blessing in not-so-much-disguise, too. This tight end class is one of the weakest in years, so not spending a pick on one is probably wise. 2021, however, looks ripe with tight end talent: all 3 of Pat Freiermuth, Kyle Pitts, and Brevin Jordan would easily be TE1 this year. If it turns out Hurst truly doesn’t live up to his billing as a former first rounder, spending a pick on a replacement in 2021 won’t hurt nearly as bad.
Baltimore Ravens: Franchise Tagging EDGE Matt Judon
The splash move here is trading for Calais Campbell, but I never personally had DE as a need for Baltimore. Because of that, the only impact I see it having is that they might take a developmental DE later on, rather than feeling comfortable with a 33-year-old.
Franchising Judon, while expected, slaps a Band-Aid on the rather dire EDGE situation for the Ravens. If, as rumored, they trade Judon to the highest bidder, their best pass rusher would probably be…Jaylon Ferguson? While he’s a friend of the site, I’m hesitant to say that’s an ironclad answer.
Keeping Judon on the tag for 2020 allows Baltimore to draft a more developmental player in the middle rounds, like Julian Okwara or Terrell Lewis, rather than being locked into the position in the first round. I’d be wary of a trade out for a team that wants a fifth year option on a QB like Jordan Love, should he begin to fall (more on that later).
Buffalo Bills: Trading for WR Stefon Diggs
Pretty easy one here. Everyone and their mother has been giving the Bills a receiver at 22nd overall, but GM Brandon Beane decided he didn’t like any of the options available to him. Instead, Diggs is a Bill, Minnesota has 22nd overall, and my podcast co-host Josh Berg sleeps easier at night knowing the Vikings won’t draft Trevon Diggs.
Obviously, WR is no longer a need in Buffalo. Some people have suggested over the years that Diggs isn’t a “true” number 1 wide receiver, but I couldn’t disagree more. They’re set there.
With their first pick now at 54th overall, I think running back could be in play. I love Devin Singletary and Frank Gore doesn’t obey the laws of time. Adding a player like JK Dobbins or Clyde Edwards-Helaire on top of them would spell disaster for opposing defenses, though. Keep an eye on the defensive side of the ball as well. EDGE and CB are both needs with Jerry Hughes and Josh Norman on the wrong side of 30.
Carolina Panthers: Signing QBs Teddy Bridgewater and PJ Walker
Remember when you could mock the Chargers an offensive tackle and not feel bad about it, because you could give Justin Herbert to the Panthers right afterwards? Those were truly simpler times. These days, Carolina’s QB room is set: Bridgewater, Walker, and 2019 3rd rounder Will Grier. Cam Newton is gone, as is Kyle Allen. We’ve gone from some analysts projecting a QB for the Panthers at 7 to a reality in which they likely won’t take one at all.
This is another logical Isaiah Simmons destination after the retirement of Luke Kuechly. Derrick Brown has been the standard pick even before the QB moves in Carolina. That remains a viable option considering the starting nose tackle is currently Woodrow Hamilton. If some sort of witchcraft happens in the top 6 and Jeffrey Okudah is there, that’s a natural fit after the departure of James Bradberry. All in all, addressing QB in free agency allows Carolina a ton of flexibility in this draft to fill other holes.
Chicago Bears: Trading for QB Nick Foles
Fans, at least the ones I know, were excited about the possibility of adding Anthony Gordon in the middle rounds of this draft. Tell me it’s not the most Chicago sports team thing ever to disappoint those fans by trading for Nick Foles. You know, so that NFL Network could replay the Double Doink a million times because that’s the last game Foles won as a starter. You know, the guy who won a Super Bowl, then still got benched again before leaving and signing a massive contract. The one who then broke his collarbone and got replaced by a guy that looks like if a transient was a Chad, making it painfully clear that the aforementioned massive contract wasn’t worth it.
At least he’ll be better than Trubisky?
It’s honestly probably for the best as far as the draft goes, actually. After the retirement of Kyle Long, one of the biggest needs in Chicago is guard, but most of the best pure guards in this class will be available with that 4th rounder fans wanted to use on Gordon. That frees up earlier picks for premier talents at CB and S, both of which are classes rich with talent. I’d be looking hard at Antoine Winfield Jr. and AJ Terrell/Jaylon Johnson/Cameron Dantzler.
Cincinnati Bengals: Signing S Vonn Bell
The Bengals are taking Joe Burrow. That was never going to change. What’s interesting is after that. While Cincinnati has some pressing needs, there’s an argument to be made that they should go BPA and just accumulate talent. They were bad enough to get the 1st overall pick, after all. That leads me to something I hadn’t seen a ton before free agency, but I found intriguing: Grant Delpit to Cincinnati at 33.
Again, there are more pressing needs. EDGE, IOL, LB, a receiver to replace AJ Green, who’s likely on his way out. However, Shawn Williams, while a team captain and excellent leader, wasn’t good enough to fend off replacement, at least in my mind. Delpit is someone who would be good enough to justify replacing Williams. But, apparently, so is Bell.
This means that Cincinnati will likely focus on marrying need and value, rather than strictly picking the best available. That’s fine; it’s a common strategy. Franchising Green might push WR down the board a bit for them, so I’d expect EDGE or IOL at 33. The value at LB isn’t likely to be there.
Cleveland Browns: Signing OT Jack Conklin
This is the most impactful move of an offseason that’s been full of what seem like depth signings for Cleveland. The only other option, really, was Austin Hooper, but with David Njoku already on the roster, I never felt like TE was a need for them. Signing Conklin, however, cuts the Browns’ tackle needs in half.
Cleveland still needs a left tackle, especially after Greg Robinson’s comically large marijuana bust. Expect that to still be the clear-cut direction at 10th overall, barring a trade down or absolutely massive run on tackles. However, the Conklin signing means Cleveland doesn’t have to use an additional pick on finding a starter at right tackle. Now, they could dip into this safety class, or pick up a LB to replace Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, or find a true slot receiver. Much like Carolina, their free agency moves allow for flexibility more than anything else.
Dallas Cowboys: Signing DTs Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe
There have been two popular picks for the Cowboys in most of the mocks I’d seen before free agency started. One was Javon Kinlaw, the DT from South Carolina; the other was a flavor of the month corner. The latter feels much more likely these days given the signings of McCoy and Poe and the departure of Byron Jones.
Which corner are we talking here, though? CJ Henderson is probably the betting favorite, but his tackling issues might drive some teams off. Jeff Gladney has been the riser, but his measurables don’t stand out. I know a lot of people that are very enthusiastic about Kristian Fulton, myself included. Unfortunately, it appears the NFL doesn’t share those feelings.
Another position to look for is EDGE, but I think that’ll be addressed later in the draft. Perhaps I’m overvaluing Tyrone Crawford, though. Safety is another lurking need, as I’m not convinced HaHa Clinton-Dix is a long-term answer for the Cowboys at strong safety.
Denver Broncos: Trading for CB AJ Bouye
Isaac Yiadom was such a liability in coverage for Denver this year that I always had CB over WR on my list of needs for the Broncos. Now, a trio of AJ Bouye, Bryce Callahan, and breakout player De’Vante Bausby makes me think it’s wide receiver or bust for John Elway and company.
Henry Ruggs is the obvious choice given the skillset of Courtland Sutton, but I think any of the top three receivers are fits in Mile High. Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb both have explosiveness in spades that would give Denver a legitimate vertical component to their offense. Fortunately for the Broncos, it looks more and more likely by the day that at least one of the three will make it to 15th overall.
Guard is still a need for Denver, as I see recent signing Graham Glasgow as next year’s starting center. Inside linebacker is an intriguing spot for them, as is offensive tackle. As far as 15th overall goes, though, expect a wide receiver.
Detroit Lions: Signing OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Detroit was going to take a corner whether they traded Darius Slay or not, so that’s not the pick here. Jeffrey Okudah might as well pack his bags for Detroit, just so he’s ready when people are allowed to travel again. In the second round, though, it looked as though the Lions could be in the market for a tackle after releasing Rick Wagner.
That speculation ended quickly after Detroit struck a deal with Vaitai for 5 years and $50 million, which seems rich for a player with mostly backup experience. You don’t pay someone $10 million a year to be a backup, though, so cross tackle off the list for Detroit.
The second round seems like a prime spot for Detroit to snag a tackle on the other side of the ball, whether that’s Neville Gallimore, Ross Blacklock, or someone else. EDGE is another need that could be addressed early on, as is safety.
Green Bay Packers: Signing LB Christian Kirksey
After their unprecedented spending spree last year, Green Bay has returned to their old ways of doing almost nothing during free agency. That makes picking a deal for this article difficult, but Kirksey fills a need that has been present all year for the Packers. I thought about the Rick Wagner signing to replace Bryan Bulaga, but I don’t think Wagner is good enough to stop Green Bay from still taking a developmental tackle.
Packers fans seem to hate recently departed Blake Martinez, hence the clamoring for a linebacker all year. In my opinion, the other interior spot, currently manned by Oren Burks, was and is the bigger problem. However, my opinion isn’t one that matters to the Packers front office, who seem to like Burks. That means that replacing Martinez with Kirksey might take the Packers out of the market for a first round linebacker.
It might not, too, but I’d be more surprised with a linebacker than a receiver at 30th overall at this point. Denzel Mims is my favorite, but I understand the crowd that isn’t convinced he should be a first rounder. Watch names like Laviska Shenault Jr. and Jalen Reagor as potential running mates for Davante Adams as well.
Houston Texans: Trading WR DeAndre Hopkins
Hey, so uh…why? Why trade the second-best receiver in football for David Johnson and a 2nd rounder? You still need a running back, because Johnson can’t stay healthy. You still don’t have a first rounder, despite trading the SECOND-BEST RECEIVER IN FOOTBALL. Now you have what I can only assume is an unhappy Deshaun Watson, a need at receiver, and even more media scrutiny on Bill O’Brien.
The main thing for Houston that this emphasizes is that they should probably hire a GM, preferably one that’s, you know, done it before. The second thing that it says to me is they should probably also get a new head coach, preferably one that isn’t an amalgamation of all of the worst things about Bill Belichick.
Houston residents might break quarantine to riot in the streets if the Texans don’t use 40th overall on a receiver. I’d expect Tee Higgins, maybe Brandon Aiyuk, maybe one of Shenault, Reagor, or Mims if they make it there. Other than that, the Texans are really in the same position. They need a running back, some offensive linemen, and a functional front office structure.
Indianapolis Colts: Trading for DT DeForest Buckner
This is more about the pick Indy traded than the player they traded for. As good as Buckner is, I wasn’t expecting 13th overall to be used on a defensive lineman. I expected it to be used on Jordan Love, same as most everyone else. Now, the Colts don’t pick until 34th overall and they have Philip Rivers, which means they could elect to take more of a project. Perhaps Jacob Eason on day 2, perhaps Anthony Gordon, perhaps they just wait until next year.
For Love, his potential landing spots in the first round look to be drying up. Indianapolis seems to be out. Tampa Bay is out at 14. It’s really down to a few teams that would be surprises: Las Vegas, New England, New Orleans, etc. If those teams stick to their conventional mock picks, Indianapolis could be in a position to secure Love at 34 or with a small jump back into the first round. If not, I’d expect a receiver to pair with TY Hilton or a pass rusher opposite Justin Houston.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Signing LB Joe Schobert
Signing Schobert likely kills all Isaiah Simmons momentum Jacksonville had, which is truly unfortunate. I would’ve loved to see Simmons in such an aggressive, fluid scheme. Schobert will take over interior duties from Myles Jack, who slides outside to a much more natural fit. On the other side is Quincy Williams, which completes a solid trio.
Provided he’s available, I’d be shocked if Derrick Brown isn’t the pick at 9th overall. The Jaguars love stockpiling talent on the defensive line, plus Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus are no longer members of the team. It just makes too much sense. At 20, I’d expect a corner; again, take your pick of Fulton, Gladney, or Henderson.
If Brown isn’t there, there’s been some buzz of CJ Henderson at 9th overall, but I vastly prefer taking an offensive tackle or wide receiver. Tackle would allow Jacksonville to slide Cam Robinson to guard, something they’re rumored to want, while wide receiver would give them the true #1 they’re missing.
Kansas City Chiefs: Franchise Tagging DT Chris Jones
The Chiefs might be awaiting their $1,200 from the government just as eagerly as some of us are. With just $177 (not a typo) in cap space, their moves have been limited, which makes this similar to Baltimore’s situation. While franchising Jones was an expected move, it prevents a hole from opening up for the time being.
Barring a trade involving Jones, I wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to take a defensive lineman at all in this draft. Derrick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders are both players I’m fans of, and the depth at the position isn’t terrible, either. That means that even if Jones leaves town, I’d expect a late rounder at maximum to serve as a developmental and rotational piece.
It’s more interesting to look at the Chiefs’ future, in my opinion. Jones may be one of the presumably many casualties of retaining the pieces of the historic offense Kansas City has put together. However, GM Brett Veach has done an admirable job finding diamonds in the rough to contribute on defense for cheap. If that continues, this likely won’t be the only Lombardi Kansas City hoists.